Lt. Keith Wildhaber has no plans to leave the St. Louis County Police Department anytime soon, even though the county is going to pay him millions of dollars over the next two years as part of a discrimination lawsuit settlement.
“I got 26 years in. I want to finish my career on my terms,” Wildhaber said Wednesday in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — the first time he’s spoken publicly since reaching the settlement.
St. Louis County agreed to a $10.25 million payout earlier this week in order to resolve a lawsuit brought by Wildhaber, who is gay, over workplace discrimination in the police department.
Wildhaber is expected to receive about $6.5 million of the total settlement, with the rest of the money going to his attorneys. A jury initially awarded Wildhaber, who turns 48 next week, just shy of $20 million in October. Missouri law also caps the amount of money that can be awarded in a civil lawsuit, which is why Wildhaber was willing to work out an arrangement with the county that gave him less money, he said.
“I think both sides were pretty motivated to put this behind us. It never got to the point that we were flipping tables over and throwing chairs,” he said. “I think both sides walked away thinking they got the best deal.”
While Wildhaber said he always thought his attorneys had a “good case” to make about the discrimination against him, he said he was “absolutely floored” when the jury awarded him nearly $20 million. He never expected millions if he won his case.
Wildhaber said he isn’t sure what he will do with his new wealth. He plans to use some of the money to “take care of his family” but otherwise had no plans to purchase a new car or house. He lives in South County and said he is happy to stay there.
“I might spend a little bit more on lunch than I did in the past, but that’s about the extent of it,” Wildhaber said.
He’s also pleased with his current job. After the initial jury verdict was handed down, Wildhaber was given the promotion to lieutenant he had sought for years. He was also put in charge of the police’s new two-person diversity and inclusion office, which is aimed at making sure everyone on the police force is treated equally.
Wildhaber said the diversity and inclusion team, formed in December, is already hard at work.
“We’re reviewing policy and procedure now — our discrimination policy, workplace harassment policy, promotion policy, selection processes for specialized units. We formed a committee of officers that are going to help guide us through this process of becoming a more inclusive and diverse organization,” Wildhaber said. “I think it’s going to be very important for the department going forward.”
Wildhaber and his fellow officer in the diversity and inclusion unit, Sgt. Justin Nichols, are also headed to a diversity and inclusion conference and training in Houston in the next few weeks.
They plan to receive certification from a national diversity and inclusion organization — a distinction they don’t think any other police department in Missouri has, Wildhaber said. He’s also receiving advice from Washington University, Centene and a few other large businesses in the region that already have diversity and inclusion staffs.
In the interview, Wildhaber said he appreciated the way most county leaders had responded to his case. He specifically cited County Executive Sam Page, who he said was gracious in his comments about Wildhaber’s allegations of discrimination.
Wildhaber said he was frustrated that the county used legal arguments that hinged upon Missouri not having explicit workplace protections for LGBTQ people. But he also knew that Page, who said he wasn’t a fan of the legal argument, was in a bind when it came to protecting the county’s interests, he said.
“I understood where Dr. Page was coming from. He has to look out for the taxpayers’ money,” Wildhaber said.
Page and several other county leaders have said publicly that the state should extend workplace discrimination protections to the LGBTQ community. But since those protections haven’t been passed, the county legal team argued that the discrimination Wildhaber experienced within the police department wasn’t illegal and shouldn’t result in a payout to Wildhaber. Page said he was not in favor of this legal reasoning, but was also obligated to shield the county from liability.
Wildhaber didn't have much to say about his boss, Police Chief Jon Belmar, who announced he would be stepping down in April a few hours before Wildhaber’s settlement was made public on Monday.
“I wish him well in his retirement,” was all Wildhaber would say.
Belmar was blamed for Wildhaber's case by some county leaders. Page has said Belmar’s retirement wasn’t a result of the Wildhaber case and had been planned for several months.
Belmar declined an interview Wednesday when reporters saw him in the hallway at county police headquarters.
Wildhaber also didn’t want to comment much on what he expected out of the next police chief.
“We have some great internal candidates, but that will be up to the Board of Police Commissioners,” he said.
Some members of the police force were supportive of Wildhaber during the lawsuit, he said. After it was initially filed, Wildhaber said one of his colleagues bought him a mug in the shape of a unicorn with a rainbow as a way to show the officer’s support. Wildhaber keeps the mug on his desk today.
Wildhaber said he had been open about being gay for about half of his career with the police department, but some members of his family didn’t know about his sexuality until relatively recently.
His mother discovered Wildhaber was gay when she saw his lawsuit covered on the local television news, he said. She then called him to say it was “a whole lot of nothing,” which Wildhaber said was her way of telling him she didn’t care about his sexuality.
In the interview, Wildhaber was critical of local LGBTQ organizations in Missouri. He said the organizations have never reached out to him personally about his lawsuit.
“That’s probably been the most frustrating thing for me through this process," Wildhaber said.
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